Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Biggest Loser? American nutrition

How bad is America's obesity problem? It's so bad that it has become entertainment. It's a popular television show (I confess I've never watched and never want to watch it) that holds auditions for people who compete for the opportunity to be forced to lose weight.

A TV show isn't necessary. The obesity problem is all around us. Take a look around at almost any public venue, and you'll see people waddling on painful knees and ankles, hauling weight that is 100, 200, 300 pounds more than the human skeleton was designed to carry. Even in exercise facilities, you'll see folks who are as nearly as wide as they are tall, but you usually don't see them for long. They quickly tire of their routine of five or 10 minutes on an exercise bike and pumping 10 pounds of weight on the bench press and give up on losing weight through exercise.

And it's easy to see how this epidemic started: the all-you-can-eat buffets (a good place to find the obese among us), the 32-ounce soft drinks, the triple-decker hamburgers, the super-size fries, the high-fructose corn syrup that seems to be in nearly ever food product on the supermarket shelves. It's an epidemic that strikes across ages and economic levels. There are little children who can fit Santa's role (a belly that shakes like a bowl full of jelly) and old people whose knees have given out from carrying all that weight. Teens and college students, who should be the most active cohort, have their share of waddlers. Older Americans at fast-food restaurants have difficulty fitting into the booths and chairs made for leaner customers. The wealthy have access to the most nutritious and the most fattening foods, but the poor, including those whose diets are subsidized by the government, are often obese, too. Some are obese at the same time they are poorly nourished because their diets are heavy in fats and sugars and light on nutrition and vitamins.

What can be done? New York's ban on super-size soft drinks probably won't work, although these giant drinks (sometimes consumed three or four times a day) are part of the problem. Even accounting for differences in metabolic rates, the fundamental problem with obesity is over-consumption of calories (especially "empty" calories) and lack of exercise. The human body is a machine that converts fuel (food calories) into energy, which is either expended in work/exercise or retained as fat. Some food choices appear to alter the body's ability to use energy (chemically sweetened "diet" drinks have this deleterious effect, according to some research), but the fundamental problem is consumption vs. expenditure of energy.

Shows like "Biggest Loser" are a reminder of how pervasive the problem is, but it's no solution to a lifetime of bad habits.

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